"In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places--some that have existed, and others that can't, couldn't, or shouldn't exist. The result is stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow." © DC Comics
Elseworlds are published by DC comics and have been since the late 80’s, before that they were known as ‘Imaginary Stories’ where a fresh idea or alternate histories were tried out on existing characters or storylines. Most notably during the Silver age of comics era a lot of these ‘Imaginary Stories’ were published using DC’s main characters of Superman and Batman, though they did also branch out into DC’s other ‘mainstream’ characters.
In 1986, the last ever ‘Imaginary Story’ was published in Superman #423 and Action Comics #583, called “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” This two part story arc was promoted as Superman's final appearance at DC Comics. In this story, the Superman timeline is irrevocably altered in several ways and became a darker, more sinister place.
The main story was told using flashbacks of Lois Lane, who became Lois Lane-Elliot, who was being interviewed about Superman’s last appearance. "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" was a farewell story to honor the previous version of Superman. In the following month of 1986, John Byrne published the Man of Steel mini series which presented an updated version of Superman for the modern age.
In 1989 DC comics copyrighted the ‘Elseworlds’ name, along with the now famous logo and published its first official Elseworlds title, “Gotham by Gaslight”. Though this story does not carry the Elseworlds logo, it was retroactively changed to be the first official Elseworlds title by DC and reprints of the book carry the logo. This story was a fresh take on Batman who lived in the Victorian Age instead of modern day. The main Villain in the piece is Jack the Ripper who has come to Gotham.
The first book to officially bear the Elseworlds logo and mantra was Batman: Holy Terror, written by TV writer and novelist Alan Brennert and illustrated by Detective Comics stalwart Norm Breyfogle. In it, Batman is a priest in a theocratic dictatorship who discovers that his parents were murdered by the Church. Searching for answers and vengeance, he discovers the dark secrets at the heart of his own government, and ultimately becomes a terrorist to dismantle the system which murdered “heretics” such as his parents.
To date DC has published several Elseworlds of particular note that are considered to be ‘The Best of their League”, two specifically of note are Kingdom Come and The Dark Knight Returns. Both of these stories have received world wide acclaim for their storyline and artwork.
The Dark Knight Returns
"Batman: The Dark Knight" was originally published in 1986 as a four part miniseries by Frank Miller, it has since been widely thought of as his best work. The series was originally intended by Miller to create an end for the Batman, one where the storyline would have a complete close, this turned out not to be the case when DC published a sequel to the book “The Dark Knight Strikes Again”, a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns which brought back the original team to work on the book.
The Dark Knight Returns is set in a dark future where Batman had given up the Superhero life and gone into seclusion. While the Superheroes had left humanity to its own devices crime, both by humans and meta humans, had run rampant, and the world was quickly tearing itself apart.
The story opens on Harvey Dent being rehabilitated after plastic surgery, funded by Wayne Enterprises. The rehabilitation does not take however and he returns to crime, forcing Batman to don the Batman costume again, something he has not done since the death of Jason Todd twenty years earlier. The story also brings in Carrie Kelly who joins Batman as Robin for the story arc, notably not the first time Robin has been female in an Elseworlds title. Also worth noting is the fact that it is Harvey Dent as Two-Face that bring the Batman out of retirement, not the Joker as most people assume it would be.
Other changes to the Batman story become apparent as the story moves on, such as the new tank like Batmobile which is mirrored in the Cartoon version of The Batman and has made several other appearances in media as homage to the title.
Possibly the most noteworthy Elseworlds title to date and has been widely received as the definitive book published by DC. Published in 1996 is was written by Mark Waid and painted by Alex Ross, notably the artwork in the book is unusually realistic for a comic book and uses Ross’s famous style to depict the realism and darkness of the storyline.
Set 20 years in the future, the superheroes have left the world to its own devices, feeling betrayed and unsure of their place in the new world. The main story centers on Superman and his reasons for leaving, and returning. Other characters of note are Batman, who was crippled by Bane and Two-Face after they found out his secret identity, he now uses giant Bat Robots to keep Gotham City under control. Wonder Woman, who has been stripped of her title by Themyscria after the ruling body of The Amazon’s decreed that she had not made the world a better place. Captain Marvel who had retreated inside the form of Billy Batson, his alter ego, and was kept in a hypnotic state by Lex Luthor to keep him under control.
Both these stories are widely recognized as the best Elseworlds to date, though Kingdom Come draws heavily on The Dark Knight Returns for some of its imagery, both of these have sequels, though not as popular as the original books, both the sequels received the same acclaim, ‘The Dark Knight Strikes Again’ and ‘The Kingdom’ respectively follow “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Kingdom Come”.
One thing of note is in “The Kingdom” is the first mention of Hypertime, which DC used to explain the Elseworlds stories as parallel dimensions where beings could cross timelines and see what their world could have been like.
Hypertime has recently been brought back into the mainstream DCU continuity after the “52” storyline, though if this means that new Elseworlds storylines will be published or Elseworlds characters will be making appearances in the mainstream DCU in unclear at this point, all that is known is the possibility is there for anything.
Here is a list of Elseworlds, in character order with their published dates and ISBN details for reference.
Justice League Elseworlds
Other Characters Elseworlds
For further details: Elseworlds (Story Arc)
As part of DC's yearly annual events 1994 was the year of the Elseworlds, twenty-three of the ongoing titles at the time were given the Elseworlds treatment and were re-imagined in many ways. The 1994 annuals showcased some of the best and worst takes on many of DC's characters and featured some of the biggest talents in the industry at the time. All but two of the Elseworld annuals were stand alone issues; Adventures of Superman Annual #6 and Superboy Annual #1 were part of a two part storyline entitled "The Super Seven".
Legends of the Dead Earth Annuals
For further details: Legends of the Dead Earth (Story Arc)
DC's 1996 annual event was branded as "Legends of the Dead Earth". These are not officially labeled as Elseworld tales but many consider them to be Elseworlds because they take place in the distant future and feature stories influenced by the legends/stories/legacies of the heroes and villains of the past for that particular title. A few of these annuals are actually in continuity because the characters are from the distant future. Twenty-five annuals had the Legends of the Dead Earth branding.